Catching a fly ball at second base is no small feat for any Little Leaguer. So when Kale Shiesley, who has spinal muscular atrophy, did just that Tuesday, his parents, Kevin and Bonnie, erupted in applause. Kale just looked at them and beamed.
"I'm so proud and excited," said Bonnie. "He's thrilled. He was chewing his gum like a baseball player does. He was getting into the stance."
Kale's exploits were just one small highlight of the opening of Miracle League at Veterans Park on Grand Island, as the Miracle League of Western New York cut the ribbon on a specially constructed baseball complex designed for young athletes with disabilities.
Past and present members of the Buffalo Sabres attended the opening day celebration, joining 36 Miracle League athletes for a one-inning baseball game on the new field.
"I feel so fortunate. I am really, really lucky to be in a position to do something like this," said Mike Robitaille, a former Sabres defenseman and current studio analyst who pitched in on the field. "It's stuff like this off the ice that you hope people will remember you for. Not playing hockey, but the important stuff."
Jacob Heim was the first batter up for Rene Robert's team. He made short work of it with Sabres right winger Patrick Kaleta by his side, stealing second and third base and becoming the team's first runner to be batted in.
"It was inspirational," said his father, Josh Heim. "Jacob has worked so incredibly hard and this just shows what he can do."
Joann Saxer was overcome with emotion watching her grandson, Matthew Chorey, on the field, assisted by former Sabres defenseman Grant Ledyard. Matthew, 15, is usually in the stands watching his 17-year-old brother, Andrew, play sports. But Tuesday it was the other way around.
"This really is a miracle. Everything about it," Saxer said.
The $500,000 baseball complex boasts a 40-by-100-foot pavilion as well as a wheelchair-accessible concessions stand and restrooms.
The specially designed baseball diamond has a synthetic, cushioned surface with inlaid instead of raised bases. Uneven dirt, turf and raised bases can be dangerous obstacles for players who are visually or physically challenged. Called EverTop, the smooth, seamless surface makes the infield and outfield easier to navigate for athletes using walkers and wheelchairs.
Fundraising for the field began last summer, sped along by funds from key donors such as the Sabres, its alumni association, the Town of Grand Island, the Lions Club and hundreds of contractors and volunteers who donated labor and materials.
Like every Miracle League game, Tuesday's ended in a tie. Every parent, athlete and supporter left a winner.
"A lot of times we do things or donate money and you know you're giving to a great cause. But when you get to come here and really see the impact it has on people, it's really a special moment," said Michael Peca, a former Sabres forward.
Jeff Dinsmore was awed to see his son Mike playing baseball, assisted by one of his own sports heroes, former Sabres defenseman Larry Carriere. But Mike himself was even more delighted.
"It's awesome," he said. "That's all I can say is one word. Awesome."